Under EU rules, those seeking political asylum must apply in the first European country that they enter. Since the beginning of the year that is what has been expected of the growing numbers of migrants, mostly, but not exclusively from Syria, who have entered Hungary across the 108-mile border with Serbia. None of the arrivals has wanted to settle in Hungary itself—wages here are low, there are few available jobs, and the Hungarian government has made it emphatically clear that it does not want them. However, many migrants have been reluctant to apply because the rules require that if the country of their choice subsequently refuses to accept them they would be returned to Hungary. Some have therefore destroyed their papers in an attempt to frustrate the registration process, or have simply disappeared from the increasingly crowded reception camps in which they were placed by the Hungarian authorities.
Between January 1 and May 31, 50,000 migrants tried to cross the border—an 880 per cent increase on the same period in 2014, which meant that Hungary received more asylum seekers per capita during this period than any other country. Some were refugees fleeing war or persecution, others were clearly economic migrants. Struggling to expand the facilities at reception centres, the Hungarian government sought sympathy and financial aid in Brussels, but complained that its concerns were disregarded. Nevertheless, the average time spent in Hungary by migrants as they headed for the border with Austria by road or rail was a mere thirty-six hours and most ordinary Hungarians were unaware that their country had become an increasingly important conduit for those fleeing from war and persecution or simply seeking a better life. Then in late summer the numbers crossing the border from Serbian suddenly soared—despite the construction of a four-metre-high wire fence and the repeated warnings of the Hungarian government that immigrants would not be welcome.
As the numbers rose, one dramatic scene followed another. First, growing numbers of migrants engulfed Keleti, Budapest’s largest and most important railway station, in order to travel to Austria. Young men, their faces set in expressions of grim determination, could be seen by television viewers around the world as they levered or wrestled their way into the packed carriages of one train, with infants and children passed overhead through windows. Ordinary Hungarians caught up in the drama looked as frightened as the policemen and railway workers trying to maintain a semblance of order.
This report appears in the October edition of Quadrant.
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This particular train went nowhere, however; the service was cancelled and the station was later closed. Those on the train gradually rejoined the station concourse or the adjoining area as almost overnight the station, which is less than two miles from the city centre, took on the appearance of a refugee camp with around 3000 people sleeping under blankets or in sleeping bags. Following the closure of the station there were scuffles with police and cries of “Merkel! Merkel!” and “Germany! Germany!” as if those present were attending a political rally. Pro-Merkel slogans were daubed on the walls, although someone, perhaps a British tourist, had scrawled in English: “Welcome to the EU—and good luck!” During the days that followed many escaped the heat by moving into the subterranean passages of Keleti underground station, where volunteers distributed food and drink.
Later that week several hundred men, women and children boarded a train which they believed would take them to a destination close to the Austrian border. Instead, the train stopped in the town of Bicske, twenty-five miles outside the capital, where riot police were waiting to take them to a reception facility. There were chaotic scenes when one man threw himself, his wife and their small child onto the track, begging police not to force them to go to the camp. “We won’t move from here!” he shouted repeatedly. A chorus, of “No camps, no camps,” was joined by those watching. The man was later handcuffed and taken away by officers while many of those who had reluctantly left the train re-boarded and refused to leave or to accept food and drink. One man died after falling on the track when breaking through a police cordon.
After a night aboard the train several hundred set off to walk to the Austrian border along the M1 motorway, the police making no apparent attempt to prevent them. At roughly the same time, a larger group of around 1000 set off from Keleti station with the same intention, followed by a large media contingent which seemed intent in writing them into the history of famous marches. Both groups subsequently boarded buses provided by the Hungarian government which took them to the Austrian border where they were applauded by a cheering crowd offering gifts and told that they would have the choice of remaining within Austria to file for asylum or to go on to Germany in order to do so.
The about-turn by the Hungarian government had followed a telephone call between the Austrian Chancellor, Werner Faymann, and the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, who until that moment had consistently tried to apply the rules governing asylum within the Schengen area. Orban insisted, however, that the relaxation of the rules for humanitarian reasons was strictly temporary and would be followed by the restoration of order and new legislation to impose stiff jail sentences on those entering the country illegally.
With the arrival of the buses the numbers camped out at Keleti began to dwindle but new waves of immigrants then arrived. One of the arrivals, a pretty seventeen-year-old Syrian girl, who plans to complete her computer studies in Germany, told me that she had found it relatively easy to burrow under the fence at the Serbian-Hungarian border at night, an experience which she found far less frightening than the earlier sea crossing from Turkey to Greece aboard a forty-foot piece of floating plastic.
A young engineer described how the tiny overcrowded boat on which he had made the same journey had come close to overturning on several occasions. Did he fear that he would drown? “I have a brave heart,” he said, before thanking me for my interest, shaking my hand warmly and warning me that my shoelace had become undone and I should be careful not to trip.
Most of the Syrians I spoke to were young, well educated, personable, polite, brave, and very determined; the kind of people that will be needed to rebuild their country when the war ends; nearly all wanted to go to Germany. Many liked the idea of Britain as a destination, but had heard that it was more difficult to enter. I heard one obviously educated man in his thirties say that he had ruled out Britain as a place to live because he disapproved of the Sykes–Picot pact of 1916.
Smaller groups of Iraqis, Afghans and Kurds appeared suspicious and unwilling to communicate, perhaps because of language difficulties. None that I spoke to complained about harsh treatment at the hands of Hungarian police or officials, although such reports have frequently appeared in the Western media. Several expressed gratitude to ordinary Hungarians for offering food and clothes, but the only blame levelled was directed at those responsible for the war in Syria and at the Arab states that were in a position to provide practical help for those fleeing the conflict but had failed to do so.
Five days after Keleti had become the focus of international press attention the numbers leaving the railway station seemed to roughly equal the number of new arrivals, with groups of Austrian volunteers providing advice to the newcomers on how to reach towns near the Austrian border, such as Hegyeshalom and Sopron, by rail, and liaising with those organising transport to take the migrants on the subsequent stage of the journey. Rail tickets were distributed to those who did not have money to pay for them. The volunteers, mostly girls in their teens or twenties, also organised small convoys of cars for others, as well as providing food and drink and the opportunity to recharge cellphones. Despite Mr Orban’s best efforts it would therefore seem that the flow of Middle Eastern immigrants through his country is set to continue.
Two immediate factors would seem to explain the sudden upsurge in numbers which began in late August: the realisation among Syrians that the war is not likely to end for some time, and Mrs Merkel’s remarkable offer to find room for 800,000 asylum seekers, an offer which was made apparently without consulting the leaders of the countries through which the asylum seekers would be likely to pass and with scant regard for their interests.
The situation is not without irony. For here was an instance where the pugnacious Eurosceptic Hungarian leader was trying to enforce EU rules and to protect Schengen’s external border while the German Chancellor, described by Time magazine as the “Conscience of Europe”, was offering an open-handed inducement to millions of people to flout them. Predictably it was Mrs Merkel who received the plaudits and Mr Orban the opprobrium.
It was presumably Mrs Merkel’s conduct which led Orban to surprise a press conference in Brussels by saying that the crisis was not a European problem at all, but a German one. However, an article by him in the previous day’s issue of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung explains why he should seek to lay the blame at Germany’s door:
Everything which is now taking place before our eyes threatens to have explosive consequences for the whole of Europe. Europe’s response is madness. We must acknowledge that the European Union’s misguided immigration policy is responsible for this situation.
Irresponsibility is the mark of every European politician who holds out the promise of a better life to immigrants and encourages them to leave everything behind and risk their lives in setting out for Europe. If Europe does not return to the path of common sense, it will find itself laid low in a battle for its fate.
Mrs Merkel’s “humane leadership” (President Obama’s words) may have shocked some, but in some ways her response is entirely in keeping with the policies followed by successive French and German leaders. This has been to “Europeanise” problems in order to foster the grand project of ever closer European union. Jean Monnet, the EU’s founding father, foresaw what he described as “beneficial crises” which would occur as a result of the drive towards union but which could be exploited to further promote political integration. That has been the response to every major crisis that has occurred in recent decades, including most recently the crisis in the single currency, which, like Schengen, fails to take account of important and seemingly obvious realities.
Accordingly, while the Commission pressed for resources and staff to deal with the crisis, Mrs Merkel and M Hollande instructed it to draw up “mandatory” quotas for other Schengen members to ensure that they received a “fair share” of asylum applications.
But, leaving aside the outright opposition of the Visegrad countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary) to the scheme, the readiness to disregard the views of democratically elected governments and the impossibility of establishing criteria that would be universally regarded as fair, how on earth could such a system be made to work? What would prevent those sent to one EU country relocating themselves to another without reimposition of the national border controls which the Schengen agreement was intended to abolish? The Schengen architects had argued that while those within the zone would enjoy a glorious freedom of travel without restrictions or travel documents, a strong external border would keep out unwanted strangers. A rudimentary acquaintance with the geography of Europe and a modicum of common sense should have been enough to convince everyone except the most ardent Europhile that this was an impossible dream. For the inescapable reality is that while Europe is safe and contains some of the best countries on earth in which to live, much of the Middle East and North Africa is desperately poor, conflict-riven and violent. Was it not inevitable that some of those living there would seek to move to Europe?
Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU President, has described Schengen as Europe’s “greatest achievement” but, combined with Mrs Merkel’s “humane leadership”, its effect has been to give tens of millions of people reason to think that once they have made their way to a Greek island or a deserted stretch of the Italian or Spanish coast they have a good chance of reaching almost any city in Europe.
To be sure, Europe has a moral obligation to assist those who seek asylum and, where it is practical, an interest in helping poor countries to resolve conflicts and to advance economically. Having embraced policies which tempt millions to risk their lives and to trust to people traffickers, Europe cannot sit on its hands. But there is no obligation to process applications for asylum in Europe, still less to settle them in the European city of their choice. As John O’Sullivan argued in a recent edition of the Hungarian Review, the outlines of a practical scheme are clear: establish refugee processing centres outside Europe in North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean; admit no migrants of any category who have not been processed in this way; restore national border control, and introduce an effective system of deportation for those who have entered illegally against these rules.
It does not follow that those who are successfully vetted should expect to live in Europe. The Oxford economist Paul Collier has suggested that the best Europe can do in the case of the Syrians is to foster a Syrian economy-in-exile located in Jordan and in other neighbouring countries. This would offer some dignity to the refugees as well as a credible hope of a return to normality, whereas attempting to provide them with dream lives in Europe will gut the country of the very people it will need when the war comes to an end, as it eventually will. Collier points to the existence of an empty industrial zone in Jordan with the potential of employing a labour force several times larger than the largest of the Jordanian refugee camps which would be capable of incubating a post-conflict economic recovery. Europe and the US could provide the incentives that could make this happen and grant open access to their markets while encouraging the creation of similar schemes in the case of Syria’s other neighbours.
Among immigration experts, Collier is unusual in that he considers the impact of different schemes on those who are left behind in failing states or war zones because they lack the moral or material resources to escape, as well as taking into account the impact on the social cohesion of the countries in which immigrants choose to settle; and he comes up with imaginative but practical solutions. In contrast, EU policy ignores important demographic, economic and political realities and is clouded by moral confusion; unless it is reversed the consequences could be catastrophic.
Gerald Frost’s books include Too “Nice” to be Tories: How the Modernisers have Damaged the Conservative Party (with Anthony Scholefield) and Making Things Happen: The Life and Original Thinking of Nigel Vinson. He is deputy director of the Danube Institute.